Here's the Secret Brain Math That Makes People More Confident


Whether it's applying for a job, hitting on someone at a bar or picking vanilla or chocolate, confidence dictates every decision you make. But that confidence isn't just a character trait. A new study says it may be your brain perpetually running statistics.


Adam Kepecs, professor of neuroscience at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and lead author of the study published in the journal Neuron, says your brain is just acting like one big computer. So no, you're probably not the free spirit your Instagram page would have us believe.

"Whenever we make decisions, we need confidence," Kepecs said in a statement. "If we did not have an accurate mechanism for confidence that is usually right, we would have difficulties in correcting decisions or placing bets."

Earlier studies concluded that confidence comes from imperfect guidelines, gut feelings and approximations — basically, an error-prone system. But if the system is so broken, Kepecs says, our decisions would lead us in the wrong direction much more often, or might create a struggle to do even the simplest task. So, decisions have to be more calculated than that.

The study: Kepecs and his team observed the decisions made by a group of participants and tried to identify what evidence was enough for someone to make a decision. Volunteers listened to clicking sounds and had to choose, on a scale of 1 (random guess) to 5 (high confidence), which clicking sounds were faster than others.

The findings showed that humans, like computers, reach their conclusion based on statistical calculations — like how statistics are drawn from seeing patterns in a mishmash of data.

The follow-up test tried the same thing, only the tests involved identifying the populations of different countries — something your arrogant coworker might be overconfident about even if he doesn't know shit, and something your meek friend might screw up even if he knows the answer.

"This subjective feeling of confidence relies on a statistical computation," Kepecs said. In other words, confidence is not a shortcut.

But try to tell that to the asshole hitting on you at the bar.